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The Mustang is lucky to have survived Ford's model purge that ousted the Thunderbird, Probe, Aspire and Aerostar last spring. Lucky, because it has a huge following, an even bigger aftermarket, and a legend that none of those other now-dead (model) brands can match. The Mustang is an icon that, having escaped the axe in 1988, has lasted another 10 years by following a simple formula: cheap, quick, fast, and cute. The changes made to the car for 1998 are minimal, including the attractive pricing.
The Mustang has only two true competitors, the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird - the other two members of the ponycar segment. Like the two GM ponycars, the Ford Mustang comes in many guises. There are V6 and V8 versions in both coupe and convertible body styles along with the Cobra, a super-performance model that competes against the Camaro SS and the Firebird Ram Air. There are Japanese and Korean coupes that compete with the Mustang on price, but certainly not on performance.
The Mustang offers a 3.8-liter V6 with 150 horsepower and 215 foot-pounds of torque, for $17,020, and a V6 convertible for $21,520. The GT, powered by a 4.6-liter, single overhead-cam V8 rated at 225 hp and 290 lbs.-ft. for 1998, starts at $21,020 for the coupe and $25,020 for the convertible. A 32-valve, double overhead-cam 305-hp V8 is exclusive to the $26,680 Cobra and $29,480 Cobra convertible.
The engines are backed by either a standard 5-speed manual or an optional 4-speed automatic overdrive transmission, except for the Cobra, which only comes with a manual gearbox. Air conditioning is now standard on GT models. Tires on the GT now carry an H-speed rating, a step down from the Z-rated tires last year. Another change is the leather interior package that includes front bucket seats only, a change made in the name of affordability.
In this class, horsepower and acceleration at a reasonable price are what matter, and the Mustang 4.6-liter V8 has plenty of each. While the new modular single overhead-cam V8 engine doesn't have the loud and lumpy idle quality and ferocious intake roar of the old 5.0-liter overhead-valve V8, it has almost exactly the same power and torque characteristics and accelerates at almost exactly the same rate, with 0-60 mph times in the low 6-second range. That's quick.
The new V8 will pull happily to 6000 rpm, making the driving experience that much more fun. The 4-speed automatic may be the better choice for those who have to commute in heavy traffic and there's little loss in performance. But the new Borg-Warner T-56 5-speed manual is more fun with a 225-hp V8 engine. The gearbox shifts smoothly and mates well to an engine that features a flexible powerband and sufficient strength to take high-rpm shifts for the life of the car.
The 1998 Mustang chassis is essentially the same as the 1979 Mustang. It has been reinforced to make the car handle more crisply, steer more accurately, and deal with road shocks more effectively. But it is still a modified 1979 Mustang unibody chassis with relatively unsophisticated MacPherson strut suspension and a solid rear axle. Given what they had to work with, the Mustang's engineers have done a good job making the car smoother and quieter.
Most of the raw edges and choppiness of the Mustang's old suspension behavior have been smoothed out. The steering is more direct and more positive than previous Mustangs, helped by performance tire technology.
The Camaro and Firebird may offer an advantage of 80-95 horsepower over the Mustang GT. But the Mustang GT gets better gas mileage, it's quieter, it rides better, and it offers better interior ergonomics and quality than the GM pony cars. Another major factor in its favor is that it is far less expensive than either one of the performance GM cars by several thousand dollars, a factor that makes the Mustang GT the best all-around car in the class.